The importance of racial equity in the arts
I, Too (1926)
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed –
I, too, am America.
Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
Ninety years have passed since the poet Langston Hughes gave voice to the hope for a more inclusive and equitable America. Nine full decades, but for many people of color looking for a place at the table in America’s arts communities, “tomorrow” has yet to arrive.
In Hughes’ day whites accounted for almost 90% of our country’s population and held sway over most facets of our nation’s artistic life. Today, white Americans account for just over 60% of the population, yet
96% of orchestral musicians in America are white,
95% of art museum directors in America are white,
80% of all Broadway roles are awarded to white artists.
Intentionally or accidentally, we have created and maintained largely segregated arts communities – in Atlanta and across the country.
Why is this a problem?
Art is at its best when it is both created and viewed from multiple perspectives, when it presents us with ideas different from our own. Art makes it possible, in unique and engaging ways, for people to understand their own cultures and experiences – and the cultures and experiences of others as well. When we take a segregated approach to art – especially when making fundamental decisions about which art will be presented and by which artists, decisions about which artists and art facilities will receive public and private funding – we deny art its power to create much-needed common ground upon which people of vastly different backgrounds and opinions can stand together.
I sat down recently with a leader in Atlanta’s African American arts community to talk about racial equity. I asked, “When I go to a concert, see a play or take in a gallery exhibition at Atlanta’s best-known venues, I often see mostly homogenous audiences – audiences that don’t reflect the great diversity of our city. Why do you think that is?”
“Two things to think about,” was the reply. “First, look at the program book. Thumb through and look at the faces you see in the photos. Those photos tell you who the presenter had in mind when planning the event. Doesn’t mean other people can’t come, doesn’t mean we’re not welcome – but it does suggest that we’re not the audience the presenter had in mind.”
“More importantly, who are the artists? It’s not that African Americans don’t like Neil Simon’s plays or Beethoven’s string quartets. It’s that when the curtain rises we want to see people on stage who look like us, who share our history, who reflect our culture. I want my children to look on that stage and think to themselves, ‘One day, that could be meI’”
How can we change the status quo?
Let’s start with something obvious: We all enjoy listening to live music, seeing a play, and engaging with visual art that connects us to our life’s experiences, to our own history and background. That’s human nature. If we want audiences to mirror the beautiful ethnic and racial diversity of Atlanta, let’s make that far more likely to happen by encouraging local arts organizations to engage resident and guest artists that reflect the breadth and depth of our community. It’s 2017: time for everyone to be “at the table” – and on stage, and in the audience.